African Leaders Sign Congo Forest Conservation Agreements

BRAZZAVILLE, Congo, February 9, 2005 (ENS) - Africa’s first regional conservation treaty as well as an agreement to protect over seven percent of the Congo Basin forests were signed Saturday in Brazzaville.

Putting aside differences that have led them to war in the recent past, presidents from across Central Africa agreed to conserve their regional forests during the February 4 and 5 Second Heads of State Forest Summit. The Brazzaville meeting is the follow-up to the 1999 Yaounde Summit, hosted by President Paul Biya of Cameroon and co-chaired by WWF President Emeritus Prince Philip.

The agreement decides the future of the world’s second largest rainforest by legally recognizing the Central African Forests Commission as the only decisionmaking body on forests for the Central African Region.

The 10 countries to sign the regional treaty are - Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Sao Tome and Principe, Rwanda, and Burundi.

In addition, a trilateral agreement signed between Cameroon, Gabon, and Congo will protect 14.6 million hectares of forests including Dja, Odzala and Minkebe National Parks, the equivalent of 7.5 percent of the entire Congo Basin.

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The River Dja and surrounding forests in the Congo Basin country of Cameroon. This area is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (Photo courtesy UNESCO)
“The treaty and the TRIDOM agreement will help Central African countries cooperate across borders in protected areas management, to tackle poaching and the illicit bushmeat trade, as well as illegal logging," said WWF International Director General Dr. Claude Martin. The WWF has fostered the consensus that underlies this agreement.

"These activities are particularly detrimental for the livelihood and culture of the local pygmy communities,” Martin said.

The Congo Basin forests contain more than half of Africa's animal species, including most of the forest elephants left in the continent and the entire world population of lowland gorillas.

These forests also provide food, materials and shelter to some 20 million people.

Experts estimate that the region loses 1.5 million hectares of forests each year due mainly to illegal and destructive logging - an area about half the size of Belgium.

Other threats include poaching and smuggling of wildlife, and the illicit bushmeat trade. If present trends continue, two-thirds of the Congo Basin forests could be lost within 50 years, conservationists warn.

Also signed at the Summit was an accord allowing free movement of park staff between Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Republic of Congo in the Sangha Tri-National Conservation Area. This means that park staff can work across international borders to fight poaching and illegal logging.

“These agreements mean that park staff no longer have to watch helplessly as poachers in one country escape across the river into another,” Martin said. “Central Africa is a model for the entire world on how to reach across borders to tackle the tough issues that are threatening wildlife, forests, and the livelihoods of local communities.”

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Pygmy elephant hunters with their kill in the Ndoki Swamp of northern Congo (Photo courtesy Tom Claytor)
However, with the exception of the €40 million pledged by the European Union, no new commitments on additional funding for conservation in the Congo Basin have been made so far.

“WWF hopes that the international community will be able to mobilize the necessary funds to implement the Treaty,” said Laurent Some, WWF's regional representative in Central Africa.

At the same time in Yaounde, three of Cameroon's largest timber companies have become first in the region to apply for membership in the Central Africa Forest & Trade Network (CAFTN), a part of WWF's Global & Forest Trade Network.

The three timber companies - Pallisco, Decolvenaere, and Transformation Reef Cameroon - announced their CAFTN participation while Central African heads of state were meeting in Brazzaville.

“By joining the CAFTN, we reiterate our commitment to conserve the forests we manage and ensuring we make a lasting contribution to the local economy," said Jules Esquenet, Decolvenaere's manager in Cameroon. "Moving towards credible forest certification is a huge challenge, but we are committed, and with WWF's support, we will achieve it.”

The CAFTN aims to build the capacity of producers to supply legal and sustainable wood, and achieve credible certification. WWF offers timber producers who are committed to responsible forestry advice, information, technical support, market recognition, and direct links to responsible buyers who are also GFTN members.

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Logging site near Minkébé Forest in Gabon (Photo by Mike Gunther courtesy WWF-Canon)
To qualify as members, each company will now undergo an independent audit of their operations and prepare timebound action plans to achieve credible certification for their forest concessions and phase out the purchase of wood from unsustainable sources.

"Governments in the region are taking bold steps to conserve the Congo Basin forests," said Martin. "International agencies are backing them by providing financial support. NGOs and other organizations are contributing their own resources and technical expertise."

"The private sector can also join in this venture by achieving credible certification in the forest concessions they manage and ensuring no wood from illegal or unsustainable sources enters their supply chain," Martin said.

The three companies together manage over half a million hectares of forest concessions, including forests with high conservation values. They export about 120,000 cubic meters of sawn timber to European markets - about 20 percent of EU imports come from Cameroon - mainly to France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the UK.

Their interest in sustainable wood is an outgrowth of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) that was created with WWF inspiration and support in 1993 to introduce the practice of sustainable forestry worldwide.

"Wood markets in the Netherlands and other northern countries are increasingly demanding FSC certification for their supplies, be it oak, pine or tropical species," said Paul Reef, administrator for Transformation Reef Cameroon. "With support from the CAFTN, we hope to be able to supply FSC certified timber by the end of 2006.”

"We are committed to acheiving the highest standards of sustainable forest management. The prospect of future credible certification of our forestry practices and products is keeping us on track, and we welcome WWF's support,” added Michel Rougeron, head of Pallisco in Cameroon.

The addition of these three tropical hardwood producers completes GFTN supply chains leading from the forest floor in the Congo Basin to shop floors across Europe.

"WWF believes that responsible forestry practices will help conserve the forests of the Congo Basin so that they continue to provide for both people and wildlife," said Laurent Magloire Somé, WWF regional representative for Central Africa. "The development of markets for credibly certified forest products will contribute to the development of national economies and improvement of local communities' livelihoods."